This piece originally appeared on Needsupply.com.
There are many things we can be thankful to Italy for: Burrata cheese, Bruno Munari, Catenaccio style football, and tumblr dashboards full of images tagged “sprezzatura”. But among these fantastic cultural contributions is Italy’s crown jewel: the fine art of making espresso.
First imported in from Turkey by the Dutch East India Company, coffee has proliferated European culture since the 17th century. Particularly during the Enlightenment Era, coffeehouses were valued meeting places where matters of culture and politics could be studied, discussed, and debated. Coffeehouses such as Paris’ Café Procope and Oxford’s Queen’s Lane Coffee House hosted such great thinkers as Voltaire, Diderot, and english architect Christopher Wren.
Coffee at such establishments was typically brewed in the traditional Turkish boiling method or steeped as in the French press method. It wasn’t until 1905 that Desiderio Pavoni, building upon the steam-driven coffee brewing devices of Angelo Moriondo and Luigi Bezzera, created the first workshop for building and distributing pressure powered coffee brewing machines. These new fangled mechanized brewed coffee by forcing pressurized, near boiling water through ground coffee and a filter creating a thick, highly concentrated brew called espresso.
The rise of espresso, first in Italy, then the world, is tied to to the rapid pace of urbanization in the 20th century. In Italy, agrarian communities began to shift toward urban-centric living, and espresso-serving cafés began to sprout up across the country. The quick, single-serving brew method proved particularly congruous with the quickening pace of life. Customers at Italian cafès are often served standing and pay more expensive costs for tables.
In his comprehensive history of the beverage, Coffee Floats Tea Sinks, Ian Bersten reflects upon the etymology of the word espresso and its relation to the way in which the is created and consumed, explaining, “the words express, expres, and espresso each have several meanings in English, French, and Italian. The first meaning is to do with the idea of “expressing” or squeezing the flavor from the coffee using the pressure of the steam. The second meaning is to do with speed, as in a train. Finally there is the notion of doing something ‘expressly’ for a person… The first Bezzera and Pavoni espresso machines in 1906 took 45 seconds to make a cup of coffee, one at a time, expressly for you.”
Most modern espresso machines are powered by motor driven pumps with four different types of water boiling mechanisms. And while the word espresso might imply an quick and easy brewing experience, there are many complex factors that baristas must consider when pulling a shot: water pressure and temperature, grind size, water-to-coffee ratio, the amount of pressure applied when tamping the espresso grounds, proper cleaning of the machine between pulls, the temperature in the café, the humidity inside and outside of the café, among many other factors. The perfect espresso requires work, knowledge, and intuition. In this way, the craft of making espresso can be seen as an act of personal connection just as much as a product of the often disconnected world we live in today. And in this modern life, defined by its ever shifting tempos, espresso is the obvious choice of beverage, expressed, express, and expressly made for you.